Modern culture has done its best to separate humans from the cycles of life. Once inside our homes we can’t tell if it is January or July, night or day. Our meat comes in tidy packages and we buy asparagus year round. Birth and death happen elsewhere, out of sight.Pagan culture often seeks to do the opposite, to reconnect humans with the cycles of life. To understand and explore the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and life and death. This isn’t a repudiation of science or comfort, it’s not a step backwards or romanticizing the past. It’s about bringing the best of our ancestors’ cultural values into the modern age to live a more connected and fulfilling life.
The Wild Hunt spoke with several Pagans and Polytheists about the work they do in helping others, Pagan or not, reconnect with the cycles of life.
While birth is now much safer for American women, they have also lost more of their personal agency. Hospitals can be a birthing factory where women lay on their backs in unfamiliar surroundings. The birth process itself is no longer a Mystery where women experience a deep and profound power. It’s a medical process. While many hospitals are trying to improve the experience and involve the entire family by creating birthing suites, they are unequipped to add back in the power.
Which is why women are once again turning to midwives and giving birth at home, surrounded by family or friends.
A midwife is a person who is trained to give care and advice to women during pregnancy, labor, and the post-birth period. Melanie Moore is an atheist witch and a Certified Professional Midwife in the state of Iowa. She wants to help women regain the mysteries that are experienced during childbirth while also ensuring the health and safety of both mother and child.
“I always loved pregnancy and birth. When I was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother, I wrote and illustrated a pregnancy exercise book. In school reproduction and birth was always fascinating to me,” said Moore.
She said reading Ariadne’s Thread by Shekhinah Mountainwater as a teen also had an impact on wanting to become a midwife. The book uses the Goddess Ariadne as a basis for a women-centered spirituality.
It was during her own second pregnancy when Moore met a midwife and discovered the Traditional Homebirth Midwives of Iowa. After that, she committed to becoming a midwife and giving women birth alternatives.
Hospital births take place in a sterile environment and the birthing mother is given an IV while fetal monitors are attached. The mother is usually confined to bed and isn’t allowed to take in anything other than ice chips. There’s also a limit to the number of family or friends surrounding, usually 2 or three adults. Drugs can also be administered, either for pain or to speed up contractions.
A home birth with a midwife is very different. It can a private and quiet experience or it can be a noisy celebration in a house filled with family and friends. The midwife focuses on helping the mother tolerate the contractions and keeping her comfortable. The mother can walk around, eat or drink. Time isn’t a factor, the birth unfolds on the time schedule nature dictates.
Moore said that birth isn’t a scary mystery you need to pay someone else to do, but if you do pay someone, remember they are working for you. “I know it seems scary to accept that kind of responsibility,” said Moore, but she added that, “You are descended from millions of women that gave birth successfully. You are powerful and strong.” She also said that women should not allow themselves to be talked into an induction, the baby comes when it and the mother’s body is ready.
In Iowa, only Certified Nurse Midwives are licensed to attend births and the majority of them work in hospitals. Moore’s certification, while a accepted in surrounding states, isn’t accepted in Iowa. She, and a group of midwives and other supporters, are working to change that. Women in the group have registered as lobbyists and have worked with Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R) to introduce legislation to define “the terms “midwife” and “midwifery” and states that anyone acting or holding oneself out as a midwife or practicing midwifery shall not have committed a public offense by doing so.”
Moore has been working for 15 years to make midwifery more accessible to women in Iowa and to help women reclaim their power. She said, “I believe in women. I believe women’s strength. I know that midwifery is its own type of magick. Maybe not in a supernatural way, but magick just the same.”
“I have always believed that the moment someone passes over is a sacred moment. A doorway between two worlds and a time of magic and possibility. To be present and help to facilitate that time with beauty and dignity is a sacred trust and an honor.” – Michele Morris
Advertisements for products that claim to help you keep a more youthful appearance are everywhere. Life insurance salespersons take seminars on how to break through clients’ denial that they will eventually die. Older persons are no longer cared for by family and die in their own beds surrounded by loved ones. We send them to facilities and visit occasionally. Then when they die, we send their body off to professionals who stuff them, dress them, and paint them to more closely resemble a living person. Current culture leaves us ill prepared for death and the process of dying. Not for our own and not for our loved ones.
Kris Bradley, who recently completed a course on for death midwives and home funeral guides, said, “We, as a whole, are a very death denying culture. Death is almost a taboo subject – like if we speak about it, we might catch it.”
Similar to birthing midwifes, death midwifes help persons through this transition. They may come to a hospital or assisted care setting or they may come to the home. Death midwifes aren’t new, but the resurgence of death midwifes as a career is.
Rev. H. Byron Ballard is a Priestess of Mother Grove Goddess Temple and has helped the dying and their families for just over 20 years. She said “Just like a midwife at the other portal of life, someone not in the family can do things the family might feel too close to do.” She said that she helps families understand that this process is another rite of passage, and can be natural, participatory, and beautiful.
Michelle Morris started working with the dying while she was a nursing student. She was one of the few students who didn’t mind holding someone’s hand while they took their last breath. Now that she’s also a minister and a counselor, her work with the dying continues at a local hospice with both Pagan and non-Pagan families.
Morris said that Western society in general has no specific death rituals, other than an unofficial but deep seated tradition of avoidance. “People with a terminal diagnosis are often treated as though they are already gone by everyone around them, often including their own family. Because we have no traditions, people often are at a loss as to what they should be doing when they truly want to help,” said Morris. She noted that people will often do nothing rather than possibly do something wrong. She helps provide a framework the dying person and their family can use to say goodbye.
Morris said that, while she doesn’t share her beliefs with the families she’s working with, the fact that, as a Pagan, she’s has a comfortable relationship with death helps create safe place for them to find their comfort, in whatever form that may be.
Bradley is following a different path and is working to become a death midwife. After volunteering Reiki sessions at a senior center she said that she was touched by how much the seniors enjoyed the sessions. She found out many of the seniors lived alone and the Reiki sessions were probably the only physical contact they had. “This got me thinking about what it would be like for them when their time came. Would they be alone?” wondered Bradley.
Bradley decided she wanted to be a death midwife and created a Kickstarter campaign to fund half the costs for an 88-hour training program for death midwives and home funeral guides. Within just a few days, the campaign was funded and Bradley completed her training in August of 2014.
Bradley said that one of the greatest contributions a death midwife can offer is information and support before the active dying process starts. Bradley added that people can make the process easier on everyone if they get all of their important papers in order, such as living wills, advance directives and medical power of attorneys. They should also create a plan for how they want their death to play out as far as how their spiritual needs should be addressed, and even pre-plan their memorial service and/or funeral.
While many Americans say they wish to die at home, few actually do. The reasons can range from not having someone at home who can care for them, not having family nearby, or confusion about what is the best possible care, or relatives not knowing the person’s wishes and defaulting to hospital care. Having a death midwife helps simplify these challenges. “Being a person who can take a shift being in the room, giving the dying’s caregiver a much needed respite so they can continue to care for their loved one. [A death midwife] can act as a coordinator to get family and friends involved in care, and at the same time keep a calm, spiritual space for the dying. It’s much easier for a death midwife to tell loud Uncle John he needs to leave the room for a while then it is a family member,” said Bradley.
Bradley said that even Pagans, with their focus on connecting to cycles and their positive view of what happens after death, still fear death when the time comes. “As much as our faith might mean to us and as much as we hold our beliefs to be true, death is still the great unknown.”
She said her biggest comforts on dying is knowing that she has made plans to be buried in a green cemetery in a simple shroud, “I will literally go back to the earth and help the wheel keep turning.”
Her advice to others is that there is no right or wrong way to die, only what’s right for you. She stresses the importance of putting your wishes in writing and making those wishes known to family and friends, “If you aren’t sure where to start, contact a death midwife or a home funeral guide and ask them for advice where to start.”
“The themes of life and death and rebirth are deep in the human psyche. They have been played out in the mythic poetry, pageantry, ritual theater, music, and dance of deep human culture across the globe. So how has modern humanity lost touch with these myths and the important rites of passage that surround them?” – Kari Tauring
The ideas of rebirth, reincarnation, or even an afterlife where you retain your sense of self are no longer as accepted as they appear to have been in the past. Kari Tauring, an author, performer, and Völva, noted that even the dominant religious rebirth story in the US, the rebirth of Jesus, is starting to be being rejected in modern times. Since Christianity supplanted and replaced all other previous rebirth stories and now that tale has also started to lose its appeal, the wider U.S. culture is left with no stories to help us make sense of our own mortality and hopes for rebirth.
“Perhaps that explains the modern fascination with zombies and television vampires,” said Tauring. She added, “I think it is psychologically dangerous to live without a mythic connection to nature and to our ancestors and to the cycles of life. It’s a human need.”
Tauring is using song and dance to bring stories of birth, marriage, death, and rebirth back into modern culture. She, along with Lynette Reini-Grandell, have been performing “Waking the Bear” at a theatre in Minnesota for the public. Those in attendance include those of all, or no, religion.
In the performance Tauring and Reini-Grandell explore the folk songs and stories of Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, German and American bear lore. Through song, poetry, and dance they first tell the the Finnish story of how the forest goddess created a bear from wool fluff tossed into the waters of the world by the spinner in the sky. Tauring said, “In a way, this is how all life is created, from the dust of the stars. This section of Runo 46 from the Kalevala is so beautiful that I could not help setting it to music and dance.”
In the show, the bear goes into hibernation which is like a little death, and in spring, emerges with a cub. Tauring and Reini-Grandell then present three stories of shape shifting with the bear form, one from the Norwegian people, one from the Mansi people (Tyumen Oblast area of Russia) and one from the Ute people (Colorado into Utah, USA). In the third part of the performance they kill the bear and ritualize its death not as a funeral but as a wedding, which comes from a Finnic tradition. By marrying what they killed, the bear transcends death. Tauring explained, “In some way, we agree to become that which we kill, that which we eat, in the deepest of ways. This is the deepest sense of shape shifting and marriage. We make an agreement with the bear to let it wear our shape as we have worn its shape.”
During the performance, the audience often appears moved while a few appear disturbed or uncomfortable. Talking to one attendee named Angela, she said the experience, “…shook me to my core. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if I feel more comforted or less [about death] but I feel like it’s something I’ve avoided.” Her friend Melissa added that she felt this was something she’s been missing, “This filled in a profound hole I didn’t know I was missing. There has to be something, I don’t know, something more after you die. That can’t be the end.” Both women said they were raised Christian, but now consider themselves atheist or agnostic.
Tauring agrees that her performance may stir up a deep ancestral memory in modern humans. “That’s why it is intense and might make many people uncomfortable. It takes us to a place at once universal and deeply personal, an ancient place where we must experience the emotions of life and death and rebirth and shows us a way to transcend our fears around the inevitable. The new modern society seems to be looking for this, hungering and longing for this. It is my intention to continue providing workshops and performances that feed this deep need.”
Author’s note: This article was written in honor of a very young Heathen child in my local community who has been battling cancer for several years. Sadly, all treatments have failed to halt the spread, and this bright and brave 7 year old boy has only a matter of weeks before he joins his forefathers on the other side.
Addendum 3/16/15 10:00 am: We are very sad to hear of the passing of author Terry Pratchett, who was quoted at the beginning of the article. Pratchett was much beloved in the Pagan community because he understood the “root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft.” We extend our condolences to his family and friends.
What is remembered, lives.